The 19-year-old defenseman started the season with Sarnia and through 31 games with the Sting he had 11 points (6-5-11) and was a plus-11 player. However, on January 9, he was traded to Niagara and in 28 regular-season games with the Ice Dogs, had 21 points (6-15-21) and sported a plus/minus rating of plus-27.
Niagara General Manager and Head Coach Marty Williamson was definitely glad to pick up Oleksiak earlier this year and has been impressed with what he’s gotten from the 6-foot-7 blue-liner thus far.
“Well, he’s such a big body. He takes up so much space. He makes it very difficult for the other team,” Williamson said. “Despite his assets of being a good passer and a great teammate, he’s just very difficult to play against, which is a big asset for us.”
And while there has been a noticeable uptick in competition from what he was facing this time a year ago during his lone season of college hockey at Northeastern and now in the OHL, the entire experience of his first season in juniors has thus far been great.
“I think it’s been an unbelievable experience for me. I think it’s what I needed in terms of developing as a player,” Oleksiak said. “Just getting used to the scheduling and the style of game, I think it closely resembles the pro atmosphere, the pro schedule and the on-ice kind of game that you have to play. And I think for me personally, it’s been a great experience and has definitely made the transition easier for me.”
Making such a jump is often a big adjustment on several fronts. Whether it’s playing more games, facing a better caliber of competition or the increased speed of play, making the jump to a league like the OHL can be tough for any prospect. But for this Stars’ draftee, there was one part of it that has been tougher than anything else.
“I would have to say the schedule. We went from 35 games to 70-plus and I think it definitely leaves some wear and tear on your body and it definitely takes a lot out of you,” Oleksiak said. “But I think you have to learn to adjust and your habits whether it would be sleeping more, eating better or just preparing for the games better. I think it’s just what I need.”
But that wasn’t the only adjustment he had to make. He also had to learn to use his size and physicality much more effectively in juniors compared to how things were during his one year at Northeastern.
“I would probably have to say physicality [is my biggest asset],” Oleksiak said. “I think coming to juniors is definitely a more physical game and I think there’s still an adjustment period to that, just knowing when I can finish a check or do a little extra to use the most of my size. I think that’s something I’ve definitely improved on this year and will continue to improve on. As I get more familiar with the game, my body and what not, I think it should come along.”
The trade to Niagara has been beneficial for one pretty big reason. Sarnia was a middle of the road team in the OHL while the Ice Dogs had one of the league’s top records and ended up winning the Central Division with 97 points, which tied them for second most points in the OHL during the regular season.
Niagara drew Oshawa in the opening round of the OHL Playoffs and dispatched the Generals in six games, prevailing 4-2. The Ice Dogs drew Brampton in the Eastern Conferende Semifinals and had a 2-0 series lead on the Battalion as of Monday. Like his adjustment to the longer schedule that he has now become accustomed to in junior hockey, playing in a longer playoff series has been something else he has had to quickly familiarize himself with.
“That is my first best-of-seven series. In college, we only played one-one-done. I played in the USHL where it’s best-of-five. It’s definitely a longer series,” Oleksiak said. “Again, it models after the pro game and the pro scheduling. I think it’s definitely a good experience for me and it’s just a matter of trying to make the most of it, getting used to what I need to do to be successful in those situations, in those big games. I think we’re doing a good job so far. I’ve learned a lot and am very fortunate to be on a team like this and be in the playoffs.”
One interesting aspect of him playing in Niagara is that one of his teammates there is forward Brett Ritchie
, who was a second-round pick in last June’s NHL Draft. He and Ritchie were teammates with Sarnia to start the season before Ritchie was dealt to the Ice Dogs on January 5, just four days before Niagara would also require his fellow Dallas draftee.
Not only has this talented duo bonded as fellow Stars draft picks, but they have also developed a friendship by being teammates for the entire year.
“Yeah, I think Ritchie’s an unbelievable player. He does a great job with his body. He gets to the net, capitalizes on scoring chances and I think he’s been a big part of the team in Niagara,” Oleksiak said. “He’s definitely a special player and will definitely contribute at the next level as well. I think having the opportunity to play with him definitely helps both of us out and gives us some familiarity that I’m really fortunate for.”
And yes, the two do discuss being part of the same organization fairly often, something that remains a big source of pride for these two up-and-comers.
“It’s huge. Obviously it’s a real honor to be part of the Stars’ organization. They’ve been fantastic,” Oleksiak said. “They’re always willing to offer suggestions and offer their opinions. Whenever I need help, I can just give them a shout. I’m really fortunate to be part of the organization, have guys I can look up to and talk to knowing that they’re going to help me out and make sure I’m the best player I can possibly be. I’m really happy to be part of it and I’m really excited to see where it goes. I can’t say enough about the organization.”
There’s no doubting that at 6-foot-7 and 252 pounds that this young d-man is quite an impressive physical specimen. And even at age 19, he has already become quite adept at using his size and physicality to his advantage on the ice, which is definitely a good sign going forward. However, his current head coach does see one area where Oleksiak can definitely improve going forward.
“Well, he needs to up his tempo a little bit. Sometimes he gets a little bit quiet out there and he needs to up the tempo a little bit, especially as he goes from level to level,” Williamson said. “He’s doing a great job at our level, but to be able to make the step to the pro game he’s going to have to get a little quicker and a little more energy at times.”
But that’s not to say that like the Stars’ brass who were instrumental in drafting the big, young defenseman last summer, that his head coach with the Ice Dogs foresees a very bright future for Oleksiak in the NHL.
“I think he’s going to have to develop a bit more. Whether it’s at our level or whether it’s at the American League level, he’s got room to grow in his game,” Williamson said. “These big guys take a little bit of time sometimes but he’s going to be a heck of a hockey player.”
Much has been written about the Stars likely having Oleksiak on the fast track, which means this could be his one and only season in the junior ranks before he makes another jump, to the American Hockey League as soon as later this year.
Still, he’s been playing the game long enough to realize when certain things are out of his hands. And he knows this is one of those decisions, so whatever route the club’s powers-that-be choose for him going forward, it’s a process he clearly looks forward to being part of as he continues his progression toward the ultimate goal of making his NHL debut.
“Obviously, nothing’s guaranteed. I don’t expect anything to be handed to me. Obviously I want to work for it and I think the Stars feel the same way,” Oleksiak said. “They’re not really planning on making a commitment one way or another in terms of guaranteeing me a spot somewhere. So I think as long as I’m putting in the work, going and showing them what they’re looking for that I’ll be OK. Hopefully it’s what they want.”